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London Film Festival 2013: The Armstrong Lie - Review

The Armstrong Lie

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

HOW much you enjoy Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie depends a lot on how much you already know about its subject, Lance Armstrong.

If, like me, you have a cursory knowledge – ie, that Armstrong survived cancer, won seven Tour de France’s, cameod in several movies as an inspirational figure and, then, became exposed as a doping cheat – your enjoyment is sure to be massive.

If you’ve followed the Armstrong story from early too-good-to-be-true rise to prominence through to disgraced Oprah Winfrey confessor, then you might think it’s treading a lot of old ground. But even then, chances are you’ll still be entertained.

The documentary actually began life in 2008, when renowned filmmaker Gibney began filming Armstrong as he prepared to make an unexpected but high profile return to competitive cycling after having retired three years earlier.

But it got postponed following the re-emergence of the doping allegations that had plagued Armstrong’s career throughout, and which eventually led to his public confession and downfall.

With his own pride dented, Gibney decided to return to the subject following these revelations as much to answer his own questions as to provide Armstrong himself with the chance to put his own story across.

The ensuing film offers up a riveting account of the whole story surrounding Armstrong’s incredible rise and fall, as well as a probing insight into the pressures of pro cycling, celebrity and cheating.

Armstrong seldom covers himself in glory, appearing as self-serving, power-crazed and arrogant. But he’s never less than a fiercely compelling presence, whether talking in the present and addressing Gibney’s questions, or arguing so vehemently against those who dubbed him a cheat back in the day.

And Gibney’s portrayal of the footage, especially some of Armstrong’s greatest (and most unlikely) Tour De France successes, often provides adrenaline-rush viewing that makes it easy to see why so many people were duped into believing the athlete for so many years.

Fasincating, too, is just how great a length Armstrong went to propogate the lie for so long (realising what was at stake not just for his own credibility, but for the charitable work of his cancer foundation), as well as the no-less incredible steps he took towards his own downfall, which in hindsight appear to be an act of self-sabotage (conscious or not).

In a wider context, it also exposes the corruption that is rife within the world of competitive pro-cycling and the lengths its competitors have to go to ‘do what it takes to compete’, as well as the pressures they are under to dope and take short-cuts to reach the top. In that regard, there is an argument to be made that Armstrong was – initially – as much a victim of circumstance, before ploughing ahead to become a silent poster boy for doping practices.

Admittedly, Gibney’s film doesn’t perhaps need to be as long (clocking in at a little over two hours), while there is an inclination to underline certain points. Larger chunks of interview with Armstrong himself would have been welcome, especially the post-Oprah material that could truly be said to be new.

But in most respects, this is an intelligent, insightful, utterly compelling and sometimes downright exhilarating exmination of the lie that continues to rock the world.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 122mins
UK Release Date: January 2014 tbc
London Film Festival Dates: October 16 (Vue, 8.45pm), October 17 (Vue, 2,45pm)